Meju Korean Kitchen and Bar
243 Elm Street, Somerville (Davis Square)
Monday to Sunday, 11:30 a.m. - 3 p.m., 5 p.m. - 10 p.m.
At first glance, Meju bears all the hallmarks of the several hip bars that surround it in Davis Square. Meju is a relatively new Davis tenant, spinning out from Allston sibling Bibim last year, and is clearly dressed to fit in with its immediate surroundings: delicate lighting and a partial exposed-brick interior contribute to a familiar, though inviting, atmosphere.
Yet Meju’s offering is unique among its neighbors: a “modernist” take on Korean cuisine. A look at the menu seems like evidence of the wider trend toward “modern” as euphemism for “markup.” With small plates around $10 and big plates spread between $14 and $24, it’s a sizeable investment, at least compared with food-truck-turned-brick-and-mortar options like Bon Me and Naco Taco in downtown Cambridge. Nor does the format seem all that different either: many dishes have a choice of grain and protein, giving the menu a ‘build-your-own’ feel.
All the same, it’s hard to resist making a copious selection, given the array of alluring options. We started out with a couple of small plates: lotus chips with lemon aioli, which served as a part-crunchy, part-chewy palate-cleanser, followed by the tofu kimchi. On the menu, this looked like a match made in heaven, but in reality was more like an awkward first date in purgatory: fiery kimchi and pillowy tofu sat reluctantly side-by-side, struggling to communicate.
Choosing between big plates was even more difficult. Beef bulgogi and mushroom jabchae were two of the classic Korean dishes reluctantly overlooked, in favor of the signature bibimbap rice bowl and chili stir fried pork belly. The bibimbap was something of a spectacle at first: arriving in a stone pot, radiating heat and containing a pinwheel of colorful vegetables and chilli-red octopus crowned by a golden egg yolk, it was a tabletop firework display. Perhaps this raised expectations too high, but the flavors were ultimately a little underwhelming. Luckily, with a tray of four complimentary side dishes, as well as hot sauce and leftover kimchi, some reverse-engineering was possible. But considering the $2 surcharge for having the bibimbap served in a stone pot, the less purist, more pragmatic options on the menu are probably better bets. The pork belly, on the other hand, was a win: hot and smoky but still light and tender. Stir-fried with peppers and potatoes, it was more of a one-pot wonder (albeit on a plate) than the stone bowl bibimbap.
Though our choices proved hit-and-miss, Meju clearly has the fundamentals figured out. Although it’s twice the price of most downtown pop-ups, the appealing atmosphere and wider range of options account for much of Meju’s markup. It’s a worthy addition to a neighborhood which already offers plenty of reasons to visit.